Hispanic USA

It is a complex fate to be an American, James Baldwin used to say (quoting Henry James). "America's history," Baldwin wrote, "her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world--yesterday and today--are all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word 'America' remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun."

More than two decades after Baldwin wrote these words in Nobody Knows My Name, the rise of multiculturalism, which perceives the melting pot as a soup of diverse and at times incompatible backgrounds, has made the meaning of America even more elusive and abstract.

Of course, Baldwin was talking about America the nation; but America is also a vast continent. From Alaska to Argentina, from Rio de Janeiro to East Los Angeles, the geography Christopher Columbus mistakenly encountered in 1492 and Amerigo Vespucci baptized a few years later is also a linguistic and cultural multiplicity. Thus the Spanish-origin populations in the United States are twice American: as children of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and as citizens of the so-called New World. Often mistakenly perceived as the newest wave of immigrants, as second-class citizens assuming their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they have been in the territories north of the Rio Grande even before the Pilgrims of the Mayflower. With the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty signed in 1848, in which Generalissimo Antonio López de Santa Ana gave away almost two-thirds of Mexico to the United States, many of them, unexpectedly, even unwillingly, became part of an Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking reality--twice Americans, once in spite of themselves.

In the last decade, several books on the Hispanic experience--describing a pilgrimage from silence to voice--have considered those issues at the heart of Hispanic identity and history. Is Spanish, Hispanics' true lingua franca, the only unifying factor of a group with a diversity of roots (Caribbean, Mexican, Central and South American, Iberian, and so on)? Is the Hispanic immigrant experience different from those of earlier immigrants? How do Hispanics understand the complexities of what it means to be American?

Though perhaps it is premature to say definitively, due to insufficient statistics and the fact that Hispanic immigration has not yet peaked, Hispanic assimilation does seem to be proceeding differently from that of other immigrants. The Hispanics appear to be taking longer to learn English and to adapt to customary behavioral patterns. (Only 14.5 percent of native Cuban-American households use English alone, as do 25 percent of Puerto Rican households and 30 percent of Mexican-American households.) They are less likely to identify with the collective symbols of American culture. Poverty, drug addiction, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and crime linger despite their strong work ethic and impulse for self-improvement and social mobility. Political disinterest is high (and according to some, insurmountable). In short, Hispanics appear to be building a nation within a nation: they remain loyal to their ancestry and refuse to become like everybody else.

Their idiosyncracy has given rise to a number of political controversies: how to build a strong Hispanic political coalition and increase political participation; how to reconcile the push for bilingual education in public schools and the "English only" countermovement; how to incorporate the relevance of the black immigration experience into the debate over affirmative action and government entitlements. How these questions are resolved will profoundly shape not only the future of Hispanic America but also the future of America. Increasingly, it looks as if an old Mexican legend augurs the truth. The myth claims that, unable to battle invaders through military means, the citizens of Latin America will fight back by slowly infiltrating the soul of the enemy. That is, we are witnessing the Hispanization of the United States and not the Americanization of Hispanics.

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Contrary to the picture often painted by the media and politicians, this minority group is not a unity but a sum of parts. Of the 22,254,059 U.S. Hispanics (according to the 1990 census), the Chicanos are the largest subgroup: 13.3 million, compared with 2.2 million Puerto Ricans, 1 million Cubans, 2.8 million South and Central Americans, and 1.4 million other Hispanics. Chicanos, also referred to as Pochos, La Raza, Mexican-Americans, or simply Mexicanos, have produced a rich and voluminous literature and complex urban and rural cultures. Yet among Hispanics, they still suffer from the highest dropout rate, the highest unemployment rate, and one of the lowest income levels per family. They are concentrated in the Southwest, which many believe to be the mythical Aztlán, where the Aztecs, a nomadic tribe, first lived before moving in 1325 to Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City. Chicanos have a strong political awareness that reached its apex during the civil rights era and a sense of belonging to the land, as is evident in their pictorial art, their popular ballads known as corridos, as well as their folklore and letters (Rudolfo A. Anaya's classic novel Bless Me Ultima, for example).

According to 1990 Census Bureau figures, Cuban-Americans are the best educated and well off. They have the lowest unemployment rate (5.8 percent) and the highest income per capita ($33,500). They live mainly in New Jersey and Florida, the latter a bastion of political and cultural resistance to dictatorial Cuban regimes since the early nineteenth century.

Puerto Ricans, also known as Boricuas, rank lowest on the economic scale (30.4 percent of families live in poverty), even below the Central Americans who began to seek asylum in southern states in the 1980s and are slowly adapting socially and linguistically. While Puerto Rico's commonwealth status automatically confers U.S. citizenship but not the right to vote in presidential elections, assimilation into the mainstream has proven elusive.

Like Puerto Ricans, expatriate Dominicans have chosen New York City as their capital in exile. After the repressive Trujillo regime fell in 1961, social chaos and economic uncertainty prevailed and a wave of Dominicans emigrated to the United States. Many of them have prospered in a short period of time, without government support. One other subgroup, made of Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and other Central and South Americans, rank high in per capita income ($29,300), in spite of a 6.2 percent unemployment rate.


A war of words currently raging among the Hispanic community is a microcosm of the struggle to define a common identity. Like many issues that divide the community, the debate over the designation "Hispanic" or "Latino" has ideological, historical, cultural overtones.

While the terms seem interchangeable, an attentive ear will detect the difference. Hispanic, generally preferred by conservatives, is commonly used when discussing demographics, education, urban development, or health policy. Latino is generally preferred by liberals and is more often than not applied to artists, musicians, and movie stars. The government uses Hispanic to describe the heterogeneous ethnic and cultural minority with ancestors across the Rio Grande and in the Caribbean archipelago. But the majority of citizens of that region acknowledge Latin America as the correct English designation.

During the 1940s and 1950s and even earlier, "Spanish" was the term preferred by English speakers when describing those who had emigrated from the Iberian peninsula or from below the U.S. southern border. (Ricardo Montalban was Spanish, as was Desi Arnaz and Celia Cruz, even if one was Mexican and the others Cuban.)

Earl Shorris notes in Latinos that as Chicanos, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans in the U.S. became an important political force, the term Hispanic was appropriated by government statisticians and speechwriters. The media also started using the term to define the entire Spanish-speaking group as a race and culture. The ambiguity of Hispanic became evident at once. The term has been used as one of a number of ethnic categorizations--including Caucasian, Asian, and black--even though an individual can be Hispanic and black or Hispanic and caucasian. The reference does not denote race. Yet the mischief was done. Anglos began using Hispanic as a weapon, a means of widespread stereotyping. Like Spanish before it, Hispanic squeezes the multifaceted cultures of Latin America--with links to African, Arabic, and Jewish cultures--into a narrow corridor based solely on linguistic heritage.

The term Latino became a sign of rebellion. Among intellectuals and artists, it is fast becoming the norm, primarily because it emerged from the Spanish-speaking group. In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of educated Chileans in Paris suggested the name l'Amérique latine. The term eventually won favor over Spanish America. A sense of homogeneity came from a global embrace of Roman constitutional law and the identity shared through the Romance languages. Simón Bolívar believed the term helped unify the entire Southern hemisphere. Much later, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy embraced and promoted the designation as well.

Yet Latino too has had its detractors. Historians like Pedro Henríquez Ureña from the Dominican Republic have questioned what is truly Latin about the region. If anything, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, and other nations in the Americas are closer to Spanish, Portuguese, and perhaps even Anglo-Saxon cultures. Today in urban centers like Los Angeles, Miami and New York, the Spanish-language media has gravitated toward the term "Hispano." (Note that they avoid using hispánico, which is the correct Spanish word but one silently dismissed as too pedantic, too academic, too Iberian.) Yet even in these cities, the distinction between Hispanic and Latino is artificial and difficult to sustain: the New York City newspaper El Diario/La Prensa, for instance, calls itself the champion of Hispanics; Impacto, a sensationalist national publication, is subtitled "The Latin News." (As for myself, Hispanic seems a more accurate and convincing term and thus I'll stick with it.)

The name game may be a necessary growing pain of an emerging minority. It is the struggle to forge an identity among others--those outside its ethnic and cultural boundaries. But it also points to an internal struggle: the coming together of many diverse cultures under one rubric and one identity. Of course, there is ambivalence. To resolve the issue is to impose a universal identity--and imposition equals repression.

Given the cultural heterogeneity of Hispanics, defining them as a political collectivity becomes more and more problematic. Latino Voices, through intelligently crafted statistics, claims that while Hispanics of all subgroups feel a strong love for the U.S., the participation in pan-ethnic organizations is fairly low (6.5 percent among Chicanos, 4.1 percent among Puerto Ricans, and 3.5 percent among Cubans). And although a handful of political leaders symbolize unity, the minority has trouble seeing itself as a homogeneous political force. The majority of Hispanics are registered Democrats. They supported Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton.

During the 1980s, very few among this minority won seats in Congress and the Senate. Latinos and the Political System, a collection of essays by researchers and specialists on demography and ideology, offers this explanation: first-generation Hispanics hesitate to be politically active because of their background as citizens of undemocratic, often repressive South American and Caribbean nations; they come to the U.S. with a view of leaders as corrupt, abusive, hypocritical. Their involvement in the U.S. political system, consequently, is the result of a slow process of trust, courage, and compromise.

Political participation among Hispanics is also lower than in other immigrant groups because so many of them are illegal and thus unable to vote. But as César Chávez and the United Farm Workers showed in the 1960s, Hispanics can be motivated in the interest of La Causa--the political struggle. As their collective power grows and new forces join the political arena, Hispanics will likely find their political voice. The sleeping giant can (and will soon) awaken.

Once engaged, they are likely to be divided into liberals and conservatives according to their place of origin: as past voting performances show, Cubans lean toward the right, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos to the left. And as made clear in two issues of Report on the Americas, the publication by North American Congress on Latin America, cultural fault lines further unsettle the Hispanic coalition. Different traditions, folklore, and national histories mean that a Chicano in San Antonio has more in common with an Anglo from the region than with a Cuban in New Jersey. Individual political leaders are thus only representatives of a minority within the minority.


Hoping to solidify their collective consciousness, many in the community and beyond deemed the 1980s "the decade of the Hispanics." The minority was taught to be potentially explosive, capable of igniting, in James Baldwin's words, "the fire next time." The Civil Rights movement, together with the outcry of West Coast Chicano activists during the Vietnam years--Rodolfo "Corky" González in Colorado, Chávez in California, and José Angel Gutiérrez in Texas--heralded a new, somewhat dangerous political force: Hispanics of Mexican descent didn't want to be assimilated to mainstream American culture. They wanted to secede--to be known as an independent unit, part Aztlán and part Anglo-Saxon. That resistance has turned into acceptance of the status quo. Hispanics--F. Chris Garcia, Earl Shorris, Peter Skerry, and Linda Chavez claim--have consistently, if slowly, climbed the class ladder to the middle rungs. Rebellion has turned into compliance.

One of the crucial debates concerning Hispanics in the United States involves government entitlements. Among some groups in the community there is a widespread sense of unfairness regarding federal and local help. Puerto Ricans, for instance, perceive themselves to be, together with blacks, the eternal underdogs; they perceive Cubans as privileged and benefiting from strong connections to high-ranking government officials. The perception is, in part, correct. While Cubans, mainly middle-class immigrants who arrived with an education and with arguably greater self-esteem, are quickly entering the mainstream, Puerto Ricans are left behind. (Chicanos are in the middle ground.) Ironically, Puerto Ricans have gained the most from entitlements, as Linda Chavez notes. Yet since they come from mostly poor rural areas, their assimilation has been considerably slower.

But if Hispanics have trouble seeing themselves as a homogeneous political force, Chavez argues, categorizing them de facto as members of the lower class won't help them shape a positive collective identity. Chavez's Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation is a jeremiad on the mishandling of Hispanic affairs and why Hispanics aren't different from any other minority that preceded them. Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during some of the Reagan years, Chavez is a prominent Republican; her volume, while offering innovative solutions to Hispanic issues, easily fits the fashion in which this group was approached in the 1980s. After studying the history of U.S. Hispanics, she offers a proposal to transform the government's protection of the Spanish language in the classroom and beyond, suggesting that the best way to bring Hispanics out of the barrio is to stop the senseless comparison between their experience and that of blacks.

Chavez rightly claims that although slavery differentiates the two minorities, their recent history (from the 1960s on) has striking similarities. In order for discrimination to be reversed, blacks had to be legally categorized as "disadvantaged citizens" who needed help to achieve a status equal to others. The ideas of equal opportunity and affirmative action that resulted from that legislation were shaped as entitlements pushing toward desegregation and change. Hispanics also benefited from these entitlements for the wrong reasons. By 1965, they constituted only 4 percent (some 7 million) of the total U.S. population, yet when Hispanic leaders took notice of the huge political triumph made by blacks, they fought to extend its scope to their own community. Consequently, they fought for a "disadvantaged" status in order to benefit from the war against racism and poverty.

The key issue here is that the economic and social reality shared by Hispanics at the time was different from that of blacks: while the latter, because of their history from slavery to the civil rights movement, had a place in the collective consciousness, the former had hardly been noticed at a national level. Chavez is correct, albeit partially. If Hispanics fought for the same entitlements, it wasn't because their leaders were opportunistic but because, paraphrasing Ralph Ellison, they were also "invisible." Chavez believes that to benefit from these entitlements, Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the like had to portray themselves as miserable. They were actors pretending to be what they were not. Were they better off than is commonly believed? Out of the Barrio states that while the majority were poor and uneducated Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, with the Communist revolution in Cuba in 1959, a million exiles of another sort made it into the United States--a seventh of the total Hispanic population. Unlike their fellow-minority members, these Cubans were middle-class citizens with a commendable educational level and an urge to climb the economic ladder. To portray them uniformly as disadvantaged, Chavez claims, is misleading.

Yet she fails to acknowledge that even if they actively participate in American life, Cubans are waiting for the downfall of Fidel Castro's regime. With one leg here and another "at home," their status as newly arrived immigrants is questionable, leaving doubts as to their day-to-day assimilation. And the rest of the Hispanic population in the 1960s (some 6 million) either had their citizenship already or had lived in this country for at least two generations. Contrary to Chavez's argument, their economic status wasn't at all commendable; they did not have to pretend they were poor.

Moreover, the entitlements that resulted from the civil rights movement helped strengthen the ethnic identity of Hispanics, as they did of blacks. By treating Hispanics as a disadvantaged group, the government indirectly promotes their coherence as a political group--a curious dilemma.

As controversial as Chavez's book is Peter Skerry's Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority. Skerry argues that Chicanos are being seduced by an American political system infatuated with victimization ideology and thus are encouraged to adopt the not entirely appropriate, divisive, and counterproductive stance of a racial minority group. Skerry also claims that Chicanos cannot, and should not, be compared to blacks and criticizes Chicano leaders for pushing to define the community as an ethnic, not a minority, group. The book, well researched and well structured, is enlightening in its approach: Skerry interviewed scores of people, and his portrait, while subjective, emerges as a composite. He discusses Tocqueville's idea of the United States having been "born modern" and talks about the dilemma of incorporating "premodern or tradition-oriented groups" like Mexican-Americans into its mainstream. But he mistakenly blames Mexican-American leaders for intimidating the white establishment and claims that without them their community would probably act differently. He fails to see that deep at heart, Chicanos, and other Hispanics for that matter, see their stay north of the Rio Grande as a reconquest.


The word "English" is found nowhere in the U.S. constitution, nor in any subsequent amendment. The issue of codifying a national tongue never even came up at the federal convention in Philadelphia in 1787. In fact, after the Mexican-American War, when California, New Mexico and other territories were ceded to the United States, politicians north and south of the Rio Grande agreed that Spanish, together with English, would become the language of government in the newly acquired lands: not one but two tongues. The promise was left unfulfilled and language rights for Spanish speakers, then a slight majority in the region, were totally ignored.

Facing what V.S. Naipaul calls an "overcrowded barracoon"of new Spanish-speaking immigrants, mainly children and adolescents from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the U.S. government in the 1960s and beyond had to find ways to make them continue their schooling while encouraging them to become American citizens. They were confronted with a difficult choice. Should the schools cease to teach history or mathematics to Spanish-speaking students until they learn to speak English? Or should formal education be pursued in the native tongue? In the end, the answer was to accept Spanish as an ad hoc language, at least until students were able to learn English properly.

Advocates of bilingual education claimed that after a single generation, the Latin American and Caribbean newcomers would leave Spanish in the past and would see English as their present and future language. Detractors, on the other hand, argued that each generation of new immigrants would expect to use Spanish at school and, consequently, Cervantes' tongue would become an "unofficial official" language in the classroom and the country as a whole. Today we know the latter group was right: Spanish has not ceased to exist. On the contrary, through the promotion of a formal education that requires it in school, it has solidified its roots north of the Rio Grande.

The bilingual education movement started in 1960, in Dade County, Florida, where public schools were unexpectedly inundated with Cuban immigrants escaping Fidel Castro. Mainly because they were sure to return to their home island, these new exiles wanted their kids to be taught in Spanish. Consequently, they fought for "intelligent" laws allowing kids to be taught both languages in publics schools. Thus bilingual education was not the result of poor academic performance by Hispanic children but an attempt to remain loyal to ethnic roots.

By the mid-1970s and during the 1980s, the program had expanded to states like Texas, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, and its scope was truly enormous. Schools could apply for federal funds to implement the bilingual method, but because of legal intricacies and as a result of political battles by astute leaders, government money given to them for other educational purposes was often contingent on the implementation of Spanish courses. The irony was clear. At some point, the state not only favored but compelled schools to develop bilingual education programs, thus granting Hispanic culture a legitimate academic status no other immigrant group ever had before.

Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968 and, seven years later, the Bilingual Voting Rights Amendment. In 1981 the English Language Amendment, promoted by the English only movement, was introduced in Congress. Not yet law, the amendment and the issues surrounding it divide the nation. According to the vigilant, English is fading away because of the overwhelming number of newcomers incapable of learning the language at the speed of previous minorities--even though, according to James Crawford, Hispanics and Asians are learning it faster than any time before. Unity, the English-only advocates argue, has been replaced by chaotic multiplicity: each minority is now an isolated, autonomous group, and the entire country has become not a whole but a sum of belligerent, mutually exclusive parts. Consequently, they say, the U.S. is slowly dismembering. Multiculturalists, on the other hand, argue that our racial reality today is unlike that of any period in the past, that Eurocentrism is to be replaced by a truly global culture, and that bilingualism should be welcomed insofar as it helps the assimilation process.

The argument put forth by the guardians of English follows five easily understood points: 1) English has been Americans' strongest common bond, the "social glue" that holds the nation together; 2) linguistic diversity inevitably leads to political disunity; 3) state-sponsored bilingual services remove incentives to learning English and keep immigrants out of the mainstream; 4) the hegemony of English in the U.S. is threatened by swelling populations of minority-language speakers; and 5) ethnic conflict will endure unless strong measures are taken to reinforce unilingualism.

Among Hispanics, the most outspoken critic of bilingual education is Richard Rodriguez, an editor of Pacific News Service in San Francisco. Born in Sacramento, California, in 1947, he has become one of the foremost Chicano intellectuals. A decade ago he published his first book, Hunger of Memory: The Autobiography of Richard Rodriguez, detailing how he rose from his humble origins to become a Berkeley graduate student researching a dissertation on John Milton at the British Museum. While composed of five autonomous essays, the volume is an engagingly uniform analysis of the writer's journey from anonymity to celebrity. An accomplished stylist with a prose at once mathematically built and deeply felt, he believes that by allowing Spanish-speaking students to use their native tongue, government will incite in them a sense of duality, an identity conflict. Rodriguez is proof of how bilingual education creates an abyss in the student's individual identity. His spoken Spanish is poor; his sophisticated English is outstanding. He considers himself an American of Mexican descent and argues that bilingual education drove him away from his parents and made him a divided man.

Minority quotas, in his opinion, are unfair and undemocratic simply because, as in the jungle, the ablest should prevail (get a job, a fellowship, a college acceptance, and so on). Obviously, this conservative agenda has turned him into an agent provocateur of sorts. Yet his book has become something of a minor American classic. It is required reading in many universities and high schools, where teachers use it to ignite debate around the issues of assimilation and English acquisition.

An illuminating if convoluted study of the entire phenomenon of bilingual education, Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of "English Only" by the Washington-based journalist James Crawford, examines in great detail the plight of Asians, Greeks, native Americans, and Hispanics in states such as Arizona, California, Florida and New Mexico. Crawford offers a bewildering portrait of the nation's present linguistic reality. Careful not to encourage the creation of a new tower of Babel, Crawford speaks in favor of bilingualism with the condition that everybody learns to speaks English in order to communicate with their neighbors. He argues that denying non-English-speaking immigrants important rights and services is simply unacceptable. Unilingualism is not our true and only hope of managing diversity without disintegration. He is right. In today's fragmented world, of course, it is hard not to be an advocate of multilingualism. Rather than banning or stigmatizing the languages of immigrants and native-born Americans, we should treat them as resources that could benefit the country both culturally and economically. If adopted, English as "official" language of the U.S. must be used in government papers and offices, which means it will jeopardize a wide range of rights and services available to non-English speakers. Furthermore, it is certain to spread fear among newcomers. In fact, one might already argue the English-only movement is a blunt attack against free speech and a showcase of America's xenophobia.


No doubt the American Dream has not yet fully opened its arms to Hispanics. Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a performance artist and one of the most outspoken Chicano intellectuals, a native Mexican and now a citizen of California, has persuasively verbalized this type of "life in the hyphen." The following quote is from his essay Documented/Undocumented: "My generation grew up. . . . creating and de-creating myths. We went to Cuba in search of political illumination, to Spain to visit the crazy grandmother and to the U.S. in search of the instantaneous musico-sexual Paradise. We found nothing. Our dreams wound up getting caught in the webs of the border. Our generation belongs to the world's biggest floating population: the weary travelers, the dislocated, those of us who left because we didn't fit anymore, those of us who still haven't arrived because we don't know where to arrive at, or because we can't go back anymore. Our deepest generational emotion is that of loss, which comes from our having left."

Gómez-Peña is right, but there is something more: the loss he talks about will ultimately become an asset. To lose a country, a language, a self, can also mean to reinvent yourself in another linguistic and social milieu. Hispanics in the United States are dual citizens doing just that. Frontier dwellers, they are at once a branch of Latin America in the United States and one of this nation's most dynamic minorities.

Multiculturalism has opened the door to an irreversible transformation. Hispanics' arrival in Washington, where several have prominent roles in the administration, is a heartening sign of change. Non-Hispanics need to recognize this transformation--not to combat it, but to cope with it and even benefit from it. They need to learn about their Hispanic neighbors, their cultural and political roots, their struggles and aspirations. For as the Mexican myth foretold, Hispanics are transforming America from within through a historic revenge--yesterday's victim, tomorrow's conquerors.

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